Andrew V. McLaglen’s movie directing career is not ignoble exactly, but neither is it spangled with greatness. A formative experience as assistant director on John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) set him up to direct a sequence of movies in the sixties and early seventies that signified the twilight of John Wayne’s career. Never less than workmanlike, and never more than workmanlike either, these were cheap, quick films whose titles often simply took the form of the surname of Wayne’s character: McClintock; Chisum; Cahill US Marshall.
McLaglen’s last film as director was Return From The River Kwai (1989), a less necessary film than which it is hard to imagine. It starred Timothy Bottoms, and pretty much the only way of seeing it these days is by looking up the word “hubris” in the dictionary.
But in between John Wayne’s death and his own retirement McLaglen gouged out a niche as a director of the briefly voguish mercenary movies of the late seventies and early eighties.
The Wild Geese (1978) and The Sea Wolves (1980) were two of his and so, more pertinently to this blog, was 1979’s North Sea Hijack (sometimes known, in that surnamey way he had, as Ffolkes).
North Sea Hijack is an extraordinary piece of work. In brief: lunatic Yank Anthony Perkins hijacks a North Sea oil platform. Admiralty bigwig James Mason summons the help of Roger Moore, who here plays an eccentric, woman-hating, cat-loving, whiskey-hoovering marine consultant called Rufus Excalibur ffolkes.
The action is insipid and the characters laughable, but there is some joy to be had from the early appearance (as one of ffolkes’ men) of Tim Bentinck. He is more famous these days as David Archer in Radio 4 soap The Archers, as well as having been the “Mind The Gap” voice on the Piccadilly Line of the London Underground for some years. In North Sea Hijack he essays the role of Harris with a jaunty Scottish accent and a moustache that went on to have its own career as one of the Village People.
James Bond fans may also relish Bentinck’s appearance alongside Roger Moore, as he would go on to play the voice of 007 in the video games The World Is Not Enough and Everything Or Nothing.
North Sea Hijack is a slack film on almost every level. Everybody seems to be waiting for a payday. Mason and Perkins in particular look as though they desperately want to be elsewhere doing something different. Salem’s Lot and The Black Hole perhaps. And it is difficult as an informed modern day viewer to see the jocular, fogeyish misogyny as anything other than an actual, deep-seated hatred or fear of women.
It is one of those works where the light, buffoonish wearing of an attitude serves to cloak an actual endorsement of that attitude.
Mark Gatiss has drawn on many things for his Doctor Who script Cold War. As well as established parts of the Who mythology there are evident influences of the first three Alien films, John Carpenter’s The Thing, all manner of Martian attack films (particularly the two versions of Invaders From Mars) and the looming morbidity of nuclear-era dramas such as Threads, When The Wind Blows and The Day After.
Cold War is a beautiful synthesis of all of these things and, of course, Gatiss’s own creativity, but the submarine aspects of the programme, whilst looking familiar, do not adhere to the clichés of the genre. Das Boot, The Hunt For Red October, K-19: The Widowmaker, Crimson Tide (I bet there are more) all thrive on an absence of sexual tension. Like Carpenter’s version of The Thing there are no female characters to speak of, giving the stories a distinctive dynamic.
That wouldn’t play on Doctor Who of course where an acknowledged part of the drama, previously subtextual but now flagrantly part of the text, is the relationship between the Time Lord and his companion.
In North Sea Hijack (which to be clear is not a submarine film but is broadly analogous to one) there is a single female character amid the hurly-burly: Sanna played by Lea Brodie. It is part of the film’s brusque, laddish idiom that Roger Moore’s character doesn’t even recognise her as a girl, literally, until he’s scrubbing her down in the shower towards the end of the movie.
“My God,” says ffolkes. “You are a girl… Even so, a lot of people owe you a great deal.”
Sanna is a patronised and almost marginalised character but nevertheless she is a character who gets some plot to do, and it was Lea Brodie splashing through oil rig corridors that popped into my mind above all else when I saw Jenna-Louise Coleman in her frock and Russian naval coat ensemble in Cold War.
The very superficial similarities between North Sea Hijack and Cold War serve to emphasise two things for which I am grateful:
Firstly, that we have colossally higher narrative and technical standards serving as baseline, minimum requirements now than we did in 1979.
Secondly, that attitudes towards women’s roles in mainstream entertainment have moved on a long way.
The sexual politics of Doctor Who are slightly beyond this simple lad, but it is clear even to me that the role of companion has moved on from the original functions of dolly-bird accoutrement or frowsy explicator.
The knottedness of the River/Amy/Melody tangle was not quite to my taste, but I continue to applaud the audacity of the author’s intentions. And with Clara now we have somebody even richer and fuller of potential, I think.
Thus far, apart from her stint in solitary in Asylum Of The Daleks we have seen a phenomenal amount of Clara as surrogate Mum: nannying Digby and Francesca in The Snowmen; minding Angie and Artie in The Bells Of Saint John; protecting Merry Gejelh in the Rings Of Akhaten.
It is significant that the pivot point in the action of Cold War comes not through any agency of the Doctor, but rather when Clara starts empathising with Skaldak about his long-dead daughter.
It’s a sensitive moment, very delicately written, and quite the opposite of a conventional denouement.
And whilst Mark Gatiss gets it bang tidy in Cold War, Neil Cross knocks it out of the bloody park in his following episode, the exemplary Hide.
Hide has going for it that it is based on all the things I like best. It is a clear homage to the Pertwee era (my Doctor) and reflects the relationship the third Doctor had with Jo, and then Sarah, in the relationship between Professor Palmer and Emma Grayling. More importantly though Hide is a love letter to Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, particularly his TV plays The Stone Tape and The Road, the second of which is sadly lost now.
It was Kneale’s gift to be able to provoke in his audience a deep, superstitious dread from events that would subsequently prove to have a rationally explainable basis. It is a neat narrative trick of simultaneous cake-having and cake-eating.
More than just successfully crow-barring some of Kneale’s flourishes into the Doctor Who format, Neil Cross then went further and gave us an entirely happy ending as the apparent antagonists turn out to be nothing more than a soppy lovelorn pair of monsters split across universes.
The mood of the piece then, and the now-expected acknowledgements of classical Who, as well as the actual nuts and bolts storytelling were all, ahem, top-notch, but beyond this we got more of the season’s over-arching theme of maternal Clara. She’s so empathic that she’s the one the empath turns to.
It is noticeable as well that the central relationship in the story is not the Doctor and Clara or the Professor and Emma, or even the crooked man and crooked (presumably) lady.
The core relationship, the one that starts and finishes the story, is the mother/daughter one between Emma and Hila Tukurian.
Great great great great great grandmother/great great great great great granddaughter, if you want to be specific.
There are many questions that may or may not be answered, and that indeed may or may not even be questions.
What is it with Clara and all the red stuff?
Why doesn’t the TARDIS like Clara?
What is going on with all the gaps, particularly the problematic hiatus between the end of The Bells Of Saint John and the beginning of The Rings Of Akhaten?
And what is the significance of the Doctor’s Barbie doll?
There are podcast commentaries available for these two episodes free to download at http://feexby.podbean.com
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